Learning first-hand why accessibility is important

My blog for ONS on the Digital Publishing team’s recent visit to the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC).

ONS Digital, Technology and Methodology

This week, several members of the Digital Publishing team, including myself, went on the first of 2 scheduled visits to the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) in Neath.

The visit was incredibly educational. It drove home just how many things I take for granted that are a real challenge for users with a disability. I always thought I had a good understanding of accessibility principles, but seeing accessibility in action taught me there’s a lot still to learn.

Visual impairment

We spent most of the morning talking to Tara, who is registered blind. She browsed our website using NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA), a free open source screenreader programme, similar to the commercially available and popular Job Access With Speech (JAWS).

The first thing that struck me was how involved a process browsing was for Tara. She would “tab” her way through a page using keyboard shortcuts that searched…

View original post 793 more words

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why I’ve thrown in the towel with DC comics

Justice-League-movie-970x545

Contains spoilers for DC Rebirth #1 and Captain America: Steve Rogers #1

A friend recently expressed surprise when I bought a Batman T-shirt as a present for someone.  She’d assumed I’d be Marvel all the way. I explained that I was no Big Two partisan, but I understood why she would think I was Team Marvel – after all, isn’t everyone these days?

Marvel’s cultural penetration has never been greater. You can’t walk down a main street without seeing someone wearing either a Marvel-branded t-shirt or carrying a Marvel-themed bag (I have both).  In 2016 so far we have seen the House of Ideas win plaudits for the second season of Daredevil, and receive ecstatic commercial and critical acclaim for Captain America: Civil War, its thirteenth movie.

Talking raccoons and teenage kicks

The source material is in a healthy place as well. Under the shrewd stewardship of editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, the publisher pocketed about $224m off sales of comics and trade paperbacks through bricks and mortars comic book shops, and this at a time in which such traditional outlets are meant to be on the wane.

And it’s not just about the Benjamins. Marvel are doing interesting things with superheroes. If you’d told me ten years ago we would have an African-American Captain America kicking around while a Steve Rogers Captain America is revealed to have been a fascist all along, a teenage Muslim Ms Marvel, and solo titles for Rocket Racoon, Howard The Duck and Squirrel Girl I would either of laughed or said ‘What, I’ll surely not still be reading comics at 35? I’ll totes be a grown-up by then!’

DC, on the other than, are sort of just there.

Identity crisis

How DC lost its way is the subject for another blog, but to me it seems that the publisher has lost its core identity, ironically from Identity Crisis onwards. The house of DC was built on Silver Age zaniness, with fantastical characters and epic plots. The Dan DiDio-Geoff Johns era has been grim, continuity-obsessed and not that fun to read.

Geoff Johns is a writer I’ve never really warmed to, and the fact that his work seems to have been the template for the company’s house style since the mid-2000s has been a problem in my eyes. To me his work is bloodless, po-faced and mechanical, and I find his obsession with continuity maddening. I bought DC Rebirth #1, the title that is meant to be a fresh start for DCU after five years of the mixed New 52 era. It’s darkly comic that such a book, written by Johns, purports to be a jumping off point but:

  • opens with a note telling you that ‘This tale takes place after Justice League #50 and Superman #52 so read those first’
  • recaps previous events and storylines such as Flashpoint and Crisis on Infinite Earths
  • teases relatively minor-league characters such as the Legion of Super-Heroes and Aqualad
  • ties itself in knots explaining that there are TWO Wally Wests – one the pre-New 52 red-haired Kid Flash/The Flash, the other the New 52 African-American teen – who both share the same grandfather

It ends with an image implying that the Watchmen were responsible for the tinkering with reality and continuity, as opposed to indecisive editorial mandates.

Captain Courageous

The next comic I read after that was Captain America: Sam Wilson #1 on Marvel Unlimited, inspired by Marvel’s bold decision to out Steve Rogers’ classic Sentinel of Liberty as a sleeper agent for Hydra in its newly-launched sister title Captain America: Steve Rogers (which I must confess I’ve not read yet), both penned by Nick Spencer. The contrast between the two couldn’t be greater. Sam Wilson’s issue featured an African-American superhero struggling with the responsibilities of his adopted persona, troubled by the social, racial and political divisions of modern-day America. Unable to stay silent, he holds a press conference in which he enters into several (unspecified) political rows and receives a huge backlash in the press and on social media. It ends by setting up a conflict with Sam and Steve, which is obviously going to be a big part of the Hydra storyline in upcoming arcs.

On the other hand, Rebirth #1’s big idea is to call back to a series first published in the 80s, bringing Alan Moore’s characters into mainstream continuity nearly seven years after the middling Zach Snyder adaptation of Watchmen and four years after the underwhelming Before Watchmen prequel series. And I couldn’t be less interested.

Looking backwards

This contrast defines the difference between the Big Two to me. Marvel are publishing stories that are inspired by and relevant to the modern world, DC are publishing stories inspired by earlier comics.

The kicker for me is that I do actually love DC at its core. When I was a teenager, comics were DC to me. I was around for the Death of Superman and Knightfall storylines, the 90s Batman films (I know, I know, but they were all we had at the time) and the seminal ‘Timmverse’ animation series. I have made repeated attempts to recapture my passion for DC titles, and bar the odd title – Grant Morrison’s Batman, Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman – it’s been a case of ‘Make Mine Marvel’ (and Image) for quite some time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, DC Comics

Enough with the fan service already (SPOILERS)

Warning: This blog contains major spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War

X-Men-comics_2560x1600.jpg

Back in the mid-nineties, a friend and I were discussing our shared love of all things Batman and our thoughts on the upcoming Batman Forever. We were thumbing a copy of the Knightfall trade paperback we’d borrowed from the local library (remember them?) and were talking about how cool the whole Bane storyline was.

‘It’d be amazing if they did that in the next film,’ my friend said.

I screwed my face up. ‘Yeah, but they would never do that, would they?’

It seems funny now, but there was a time when cinematic adaptations of comic book films were not only something that came along every few years, like a passing comet, but also took as little from the four-colour source material as they could get away with. You would get the essentials of the character – orphan Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, Batcave etc – and a single villain who wasn’t too fantastical, and that was your lot.

I thought of this during X-Men: Apocalypse, and it occurred to me that perhaps the scales had tipped too far the other way.

By the time I get to Phoenix

Now there are many, many problems with the latest X film, not in the least that it takes everything good about its two predecessors and flushes it down the toilet, but what really bothered me was how much the film-makers assumed a significant prior knowledge of X-Men mythology. The somewhat undercooked villain is defeated when Jean Grey goes full Phoenix on him. This was meant to be a hero’s awakening moment akin to Hot Rod opening The Matrix, turning into Rodimus Prime and defeating not only Galvatron but Unicron’s fat ass as well (still an all-time favourite cinematic moment). However, if you had never read the Dark Phoenix Saga, or even if all you knew of Jean Grey was Famke Jansenn’s previous portrayal, you would have no idea what the Forge was going on.

The film makes no real effort to establish Jean as having that kind of latent power. There’d been a few mentions of her telepathy and telekinesis, and she had a few bad dreams, but that was it. There was no deeply serious speech by Xavier along the lines of ‘That girl has a great power within her, one she may not be able to control blah blah smackety dark side blah blah dangerous blah blah light side’. The film-makers lazily assumed that the audience is aware of the Phoenix aspect of Jean Grey from the comics, which is rather shoddy storytelling.

A sinister minister kind of guy

sinsiter

This was one of many major moments in X-mythology that was clumsily thrown into the mix. There was also Wolverine in the full Barry-Windsor-Smith-Weapon-X outfit and a sting teasing Mr Sinister as a future villain. This particular thread really derailed the second act, and worst of all, it didn’t really achieve that much. Had you excised it entirely, the film could have been tighter and more focused. And anyone not well-versed in just who Nathaniel Essex is would have wondered what on earth they had just sat through the credits for.

Look out, here comes the Spider-Man

It’s not only bad superhero films that play too much lip service to the fans. Captain America: Civil War could very well be the best MCU film yet, but it’s not above self-indulgence. When you really look at it, does Spider-Man have to be in it? And Black Panther too? (Although both were awesome.)

In the case of the web-crawler, it makes absolutely no sense that even someone as reckless as Tony Stark would recruit an unknown quantity of a super-powered teenager to take part a battle royal with the most powerful beings on the planet, where the high-schooler had an above average chance of being squashed like, well, a spider. Especially a Tony Stark trying to atone for the death and destruction his impulsive genius has caused. Spidey’s entire presence in the movie owed more to Marvel getting the rights back and wanting to put him on screen pronto.

Let’s go back … way back

This level of fan service has been a predominant theme over the last 12 months. The Force Awakens may have given us all that warm glow the original trilogy did after the prequels failed to, but it liberally borrowed/paid homage from said original trilogy in doing so. And Creed showed it’s not just the geeks who get to play in this nostalgia sandpit.

Someone’s first issue

When Stan Lee was calling the shots at Marvel, one of his favourite sayings was that every issue was someone’s first issue, and thus everything a reader needs to know to follow the story should be contained in the issue’s 22 pages. Of course, with the passing of time, the introduction of more ambitious storytelling, trade paperback collections and a fandom that embraced continuity, this had stopped being a golden rule by the early 80s. Comics’ cinematic ascendants are now in that place too, and it may get messy.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Comics, Films, Uncategorized

Time-travel conversation with my 1996 self about Batman v Superman

batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice_bb788b6f

 

INT. DAY. A MULTIPLEX CINEMA

2016 PAUL is waiting in line to get his ticket to see BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. Suddenly a hole in the space-time vortex opens and out steps 1996 PAUL. 

1996 PAUL: WOW! I’VE TRAVELLED THROUGH TIME TO THE FUTURE. YOU’RE ME! WHAT YEAR IS THIS?

2016 PAUL: IT’S 2016. WHAT YEAR HAVE YOU COME FROM?

1996 PAUL: 1996 WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

2016 PAUL: I’M WAITING TO SEE BATMAN V SUPERMAN.

1996 PAUL: BATMAN V SUPERMAN! IS IT AN ANIMATED FILM?

2016 PAUL: NO, LIVE ACTION. WITH BEN AFFLECK AS BATMAN AND HENRY CAVILL AS SUPERMAN.

1996 PAUL: NEVER HEARD OF EITHER OF THEM. WOW. THEY’VE FINALLY MADE A FILM WITH BOTH THOSE CHARACTERS. YOU MUST BE SUPER EXCITED!

2016 PAUL: WELL, NOT EXACTLY….

1996 PAUL: WHAT DO YOU MEAN? THIS IS THE CULMINATION OF OUR GEEK FANTASIES. THIS IS EVERYTHING I’VE EVER WANTED FROM A FILM! THE ONLY THING I COULD POSSIBLY BE MORE EXCITED ABOUT IS, I DON’T KNOW, A SERIES OF LIVE-ACTION TRANSFORMERS FILMS.

2016 PAUL: YEAH, ABOUT THAT…..

1996 PAUL: WHY AREN’T YOU JUMPING UP AND DOWN WITH JOY?! DON’T YOU WANT TO SEE THIS FILM WITH EVERY FIBRE OF YOUR BEING?

2016 PAUL: WELL, TO BE HONEST, I AM MORE GOING TO SEE IT BECAUSE I FEEL I HAVE TO RATHER THAN BECAUSE I THINK IT IS GOING TO BE ANY GOOD.

1996 PAUL: THAT’S IT. I’VE HAD IT WITH THE FUTURE. HOW CAN YOU LIVE IN AN AGE WHEN ALL YOUR INTERESTS ARE SO MAINSTREAM THAT A FIGHT YOU USED TO ENACT WITH ACTION FIGURES IS NOW A MULTI-MILLION BLOCKBUSTER AT THE APEX OF MODERN CULTURE, AND YOU’RE NOT FUSSED? WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT? FOR THEM TO THROW DOOMSDAY INTO IT?

2016 PAUL takes out his smart phone

1996 PAUL: COOL. WHERE DID YOU BUY A REPLICA ZIGGY FROM QUANTUM LEAP?

2016 PAUL shows 1996 PAUL a picture of DOOMSDAY from BATMAN V SUPERMAN

1996 PAUL: OH YEAH, FAIR ENOUGH. I’M GOING BACK TO 1996 TO LISTEN TO BRITPOP. ANY SUGGESTIONS? SHOULD I GET THE NEW KULA SHAKER ALBUM? INVEST IN NORTHERN ROCK? GET AN EGG CREDIT CARD?

2016 PAUL: YOU. MUST. UNDER. NO. CIRCUMSTANCES. BUY. A. KULA. SHAKER. ALBUM.

The time-space vortex opens up again, 1996 PAUL is about to step back through it when he turns back around.

1996 PAUL: ONE LAST QUESTION – WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY IS THAT ON YOUR FACE?

2016 PAUL: IT’S A BEARD.

1996 PAUL: OH IT IS, IS IT? WOULD YOU SWEAR TO THAT IN A COURT OF LAW WITH YOUR HAND ON THE BIBLE?

2016 PAUL: SHUT UP, YOU CHEEKY WEE BAM. I’M LEAST I’M NOT WEARING ADI TRACKIE BOTTOMS LIKE A NED.

1996 PAUL: I THINK IT’S ACTUALLY BOOT POLISH ON YOUR FACE. WHO ARE YOU PLAYING IN PANTO? SMEE OR CAPTAIN HOOK?

1996 PAUL jumps back into the vortex.

2016 PAUL: DAMN, I MEANT TO TELL HIM NOT TO BOTHER GOING TO SEE BATMAN & ROBIN. NO ONE DESERVES TO SEE SUCH A TERRIBLE FILM ABOUT A BAT-THEMED VIGILANTE WRITTEN ENTIRELY BY A CORPORATE COMMITTEE MORE CONCERNED WITH SHAREHOLDER DIVIDENDS AND MERCHANDISING THAN THE QUALITY OF THE FILM. RIGHT, DAWN OF JUSTICE TIME!

1 Comment

Filed under DC Comics, Uncategorized

The Top 5 Best Films of 2015*

Physical Impossibility

BTTF2

*No comesies-backsies. Four sets, actually, to cater to my indecision and/or over-excitement. Without further ado, and arranged by release date:


The What-Could-Possibly-Go-Wrong Top 5 of Sure-Fire Hits

1. Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu) | Released January

2. Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon) | April

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller) | May

4. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Francis Lawrence) | November

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams) | December


The Presumably Awesome Top 5 of Extremely Promising Films

1. Bitter Lake (dir. Adam Curtis) | January

Trailer available here.

2. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) | January

3. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell) | February

4. Tomorrowland (dir. Brad Bird) | May

5. Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro) | October


The TBC Top 5 for Films With No Confirmed Release Date

1. The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino) | TBC

2. On The Milky Road (dir. Emir Kusturica) | TBC

3. A Pigeon Sat…

View original post 68 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Positive thoughts about the Referendum

Now here is my positive blog about the referendum on Scottish independence.

In the day and age of low turn out for elections (31% for 2013 council elections, 15% for police commissioner elections) to record a 97% voter registration and 85% turn out is phenomenal. The idea of an apathetic electorate has been turned on its head. It is not the voters who are unengaged, it is the politicians who are not engaging with the voters – and there’s no reason they can’t.

This is the result of thousands of people becoming involved and passionate about politics and issues that affect them. The assumption that the movement will evaporate once a No vote was returned is nonsense. This is just the beginning, not the end. The independence issue may have been put to bed for now, but everyone who campaigned over the last two years now has another goal in their sight – to secure the devolution promised to them by all three main parties.

For me perhaps the biggest positive is that the binary two-party system we have been lumbered with since the war has been dealt its greatest blow to date. The two big parties, and the Lib Dems, floundered when forced to deal with the independence movement, as it was outside their Westminster world of lobbyists, think tanks and spads. They were shown to be ill-equipped to deal with, you know, democracy. They clearly have every intention on going back on their promise (well, the Tories do, I am willing to give Ed some credit that he may mean it) but will find doing so to be not without consequence.

And as a former journalist, it is surprising to me that I find the general shoddiness of the national press throughout the last two years on reporting this issue to be a positive. The press, particularly the right wing papers, has been exposed as being smug, complacent and utterly condescending to those outside of its London-centric world. The extent to which they influenced the outcome will be debated for many years, but the fact is they were found wanting and alternative media filled the gap.

And finally, the most surprising positive for me was that, as someone who worked in newspapers for the best part of the decade, I was shown that the new media of social media, blogs and online news sources were good for something other than inane top ten lists and being rather rude to women. Sites like the National Collective, Bella Caledonia and, of course, Twitter filled the void left by the predominately right-wing press and the BBC. If you’d told me two years ago I would be saying anything positive about online news – which back then I hated with a passion – I would have been sceptical, but I will maintain an open mind from here on in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Negative thoughts about the Referendum

I spent much of the last weekend thinking about the results of the recent referendum on Scottish independence, and have decided to write two blogs about my reaction to it – one positive and one negative. This is my thoughts on the negative side of it

I felt a bit down the past few days. As a Scotsman who live in Wales and works in England, I felt ambivalent about the prospect of Scotland going independent, but I felt sad that an opportunity to alter the political landscape was unsuccessful, even if I was unsure about the consequences.
What I found dispiriting was how reductive the debate presented by the mainstream political parties and national press was, ignoring the fact that the Yes campaign had moved beyond being a single party issue and towards a broader conversation about the future of a country. Everything has to be presented through the prism of Punch and Judy party politics, and the deeper issues of what kind of society we have built over the past 35 years and what kind of society we want in the future were sidelined in favour of scaremongering, distortion and simplification.

What I found infuriating was all the talk of intimidation on the Yes side which largely (pun alert) boiled down to an egg being thrown at one politician – surely a rite of passge – and Miliband being heckled. That kind of distortion played into the lazy stereotype of the Scots being thuggish and I’ll boot the baws of anyone who repeats it. (joke)

What I found distressing was that a vote on the future of a home nation has apparently became the pretext for English home rule (something I agree with, but more regional assemblies than a big single parliament) and that the cross-party promise of further devolution for Scotland is already falling victim to tribal political plotting and thus will probably not happen in any meaningful way any time soon.

What I found upsetting was all the nonsense that kicked off in George Square. After the eyes of the world had been on Scotland for an inspirational exercise in democracy to have those kind of ugly scenes remind us all of the tensions that still exist was extremely disappointing and embarrassing.

I do have positive things to say about the whole thing, honest

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized